Controversy Snarls Upgrade Of Terrorist Data Repository

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A major effort to upgrade intelligence computers that hold the government's master list of terrorist identities is embroiled in controversy about the project's management and the work of contractors hired for the job, documents and interviews show.

The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, serves as the central repository of information about more than 400,000 suspected terrorists around the world. Operating at the National Counterterrorism Center, TIDE and other systems each day deliver files of information to watch-list programs that screen people traveling into the United States, or they make data available online to intelligence analysts across the government.

Authorities said TIDE has revolutionized many national security tasks. But because it was built quickly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it is limited and lacks many features needed by the intelligence community, documents show. Those limitations in TIDE and related systems hamper the ability of intelligence analysts to discover patterns and make connections among the growing pools of data they amass from around the world. TIDE also has suffered periodic outages of up to two hours, according to interviews with government officials and contractors involved with the project.

In 2006, authorities quietly launched Railhead, a project worth as much as $500 million over five years, to improve TIDE and eventually replace it and some related systems with technology that would significantly expand their capabilities.

After more than a year and about $100 million, the Railhead project has become the focus of criticism from some counterterrorism analysts and contractors, who have said it does not provide the search capabilities they expected and appears to be behind schedule. One lawmaker has taken up those questions and publicly asked for an investigation by the inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, saying his congressional staff has information from a contractor whistle-blower that shows the project is on the "brink of collapse," possibly threatening national security.

Officials at the counterterrorism center said in interviews that the allegations are untrue and irresponsible. They acknowledged that Railhead has suffered from some "speed bumps" common to large technology projects, including inadequate communication about what features analysts and other users need. They said that dozens of contract employees had been let go this summer, but that it was done to spend funds more wisely and on more important tasks.

The officials said the project is on track. A pilot project offering improved access and a wider array of features for TIDE Online -- the system that allows analysts to draw information from TIDE -- will be launched in coming weeks. "Have we had some hurdles? Of course we have," said Vicki Jo McBee, who took over as chief of the project in July.

"We are making progress," she said. "The users are going to be more than satisfied."

The questions about Railhead underscore growing apprehension about contract management in the intelligence community, which has spent tens of billions of dollars in the war on terror in recent years with an insufficient procurement workforce and little public oversight, according to documents and interviews.

Several unclassified reviews of intelligence spending in the past few years have said the shortage of contracting expertise in the classified world is acute.

The allegations of problems also highlight the government's persistent difficulties in conceiving and building giant computer systems, even for national security projects.

The Railhead project relies on a controversial approach to contracting that gives great authority to a "lead systems integrator" -- in this case, Boeing -- that serves in essence as a management proxy for the government. Other projects relying on lead systems integrators, such as the Coast Guard's Deepwater project, have repeatedly overshot deadlines and costs. The Department of Defense appropriations bill for 2008 sharply restricted the use of lead systems integrators because of such problems.

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